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Teen pleads not guilty in deaths of Tonga royals

A teen charged with killing two Tongan royal family members and their driver pleaded not guilty Friday to vehicular manslaughter.
/ Source: The Associated Press

An 18-year-old charged with killing two members of the Tongan royal family and their driver in a high-speed crash pleaded not guilty Friday to vehicular manslaughter.

Edith Delgado was held in lieu of $3 million bail after her arraignment in San Mateo County Superior Court on manslaughter and speeding charges.

Delgado, who received her driver’s license in February, was charged with killing Prince Tu’ipelehake, 56, and Princess Kaimana, 46, in the Wednesday night crash on Highway 101 in Menlo Park, about 30 miles south of San Francisco.

Vinisia Hefa, 36, who was driving the red Ford Explorer carrying the prince and princess, also was killed, authorities said.

If convicted, Delgado faces up to eight years in prison on the manslaughter counts, a prosecutor said.

Delgado was driving her Ford Mustang as fast as 100 mph while racing another vehicle when she hit the driver’s side of the sport utility vehicle, causing it to swerve across several lanes and roll onto its roof, said California Highway Patrol Officer Ricky Franklin. Delgado was not injured, and the vehicle she was racing was not found.

“My client is very sorry she was involved in this,” said defense attorney Randy Moore, who described Delgado as a hardworking honors student and bank teller. “It remains to be determined whether she bears any criminal responsibility for what took place.”

The prince and princess had come to the U.S. to discuss political reforms for the South Pacific island nation with Tongan communities in the Bay Area and other parts of the country, said Senter Uhilamoelangi, a distant relative and longtime friend of the prince.

Tu’ipelehake is a nephew of 88-year-old King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, who owns a mansion in Hillsborough, about 15 miles south of San Francisco. Tu’ipelehake was the leading reformist in the royal family and led a national committee studying democratic reforms for the kingdom.

“People are very much concerned, especially the people who are pushing for change,” democracy movement leader ’Akilisi Pohiva said from the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa. “I think it’s a great loss to the country.”

Now the last monarchy in the Pacific, Tonga has been a Polynesian kingdom and a protectorate of Britain, from which it acquired independence in 1970. The 170-island archipelago about halfway between Australia and Tahiti has a population of about 108,000 and an economy dependent on pumpkin and vanilla exports, fishing, foreign aid and remittances from Tongans abroad.

The deaths stunned the Tongan community, which numbers about 37,000 in the United States, including 15,000 in California, according to the 2000 Census. Bay Area Tongans set up a memorial near the crash site Friday with flowers, their country’s flag and pieces of the wreckage.

Hefa’s cousin, Tulu Musua Pongi, placed flowers on the shrine. She said Hefa worked as the royal couple’s secretary in Tonga before emigrating to the U.S. three years ago and served as their driver when they visited the Bay Area.

Pongi described her cousin as a “very kind, caring” person who worked as a baby sitter and sent money home to support her mother and sister.

“Everybody’s feeling sad,” Pongi said. “They didn’t expect this happen. They’re wondering what really happened that night.”